Darwin's “tug-of-war” vs. starlings’ “horse-racing”: how adaptations for sequential encounters drive simultaneous choice

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Charles Darwin aided his private decision making by an explicit deliberation, famously deciding whether or not to marry by creating a list of points in a table with two columns: “Marry” and “Not Marry”. One hundred seventy-two years after Darwin's wedding, we reconsider whether this process of choice, under which individuals assign values to their options and compare their relative merits at the time of choosing (the tug-of-war model), applies to our experimental animal, the European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris. We contrast this with the sequential choice model that postulates that decision-makers make no comparison between options at the time of choice. According to the latter, behaviour in simultaneous choices reflects adaptations to contexts with sequential encounters, in which the choice is whether to take an opportunity or let it pass. We postulate that, in sequential encounters, the decision-maker assigns (by learning) a subjective value to each option, reflecting its payoff relative to background opportunities. This value is expressed as latency and/or probability to accept each opportunity as opposed to keep searching. In simultaneous encounters, choice occurs through each option being processed independently, by a race between the mechanisms that generate option-specific latencies. We describe these alternative models and review data supporting the predictions of the sequential choice model.

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